Easing of Louisiana virus restrictions to be detailed Friday

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said he will ease public gathering restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 when current restrictions expire Friday, but he did not immediately detail exactly which restrictions would be lifted.

Details on Louisiana’s version of “Phase Three” restrictions would be given Friday, Edwards said at a live-streamed news conference Thursday in Baton Rouge. He would not answer questions about the new regulations, except to say a statewide mask mandate would remain in place.

Edwards’ announcement comes as the rate of new cases, percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations have declined. And it follows Edwards’ publicly expressed concerns about another surge in cases following the return of students to school and college campuses and the recent Labor Day weekend. Also, damage from Hurricane Laura, which struck the state Aug. 27, led to residents from southwest Louisiana fleeing to other parts of the state and an influx of relief workers — more opportunities for the virus to spread.

“This was probably the hardest decision that I’ve made thus far,” Edwards said, referring to the six months since the disease first appeared in Louisiana.

Louisiana’s health department reported 499 new confirmed cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total during the pandemic to 155,419, with more than 140,000 recovered. The number of deaths related to the disease rose by 21 to 4,991 and hospitalizations dropped to 762, the lowest that number has been since late June.

Current regulations, set to expire Friday, limit restaurants to 50% capacity for in-person dining, restrict bars to takeout and delivery only and place occupancy limits on gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Face coverings are required for anyone age 8 and older, with medical exceptions. Indoor gatherings above 50 people are banned.

The state was an early hot spot for outbreaks of the new coronavirus in the spring and saw a resurgence in the summer.

White House guidelines for Phase Three openings include allowing bars to operate with “increased standing room occupancy.” But states are free to adopt their own regulations and it was unclear if Edwards would lift the closure order on bars in the state — a closure being fought in federal court by groups of bar owners in southeast and southwest Louisiana.

The easing would not necessarily affect New Orleans, where Mayor LaToya Cantrell has consistently instituted somewhat tougher restrictions than the state.

Edwards also acknowledged Thursday that Dr. Alex Billioux, an assistant secretary in the health department who has had a high profile in the state’s coronavirus response, is leaving his job for personal reasons.

“I wanted to personally and publicly thank him for his tremendous work here over the last two years, but principally over the last six months,” Edwards said of Billioux, who has often participated in Edwards’ news conferences on the virus.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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